BUILDING CITIZENS' AGENDAS

PCDForum Article #10r,   Revised for release July 10, 1995

by David C. Korten

Around the world, societies are being transformed by a reformist political movement that promises good jobs, cheap consumer goods, strong families, local control, and greater individual freedom through increased reliance on the workings of a free market. The movement's policy agenda centers on privatizing government functions, protecting and expanding property rights, eliminating welfare dependence, deregulating markets, removing trade barriers, reducing taxes, strengthening law enforcement, and maintaining a strong national defense.

The movement's message has a broad populist appeal in a world of economic insecurity, crime, high taxes, family stress, and intrusive governments. It aligns with a growing desire of people everywhere to assume greater control of their lives in the face of seemingly uncontrollable economic and political forces. The actual consequence of the policies being put forward, however, is a deconstruction of society that is weakening the social bonds of family and community, encouraging individualism and greed, and consolidating economic power and media control in the hands of a few global corporations that have become detached from public accountability.

In the United States, leading right-wing ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich play to these fears and frustrations with a simple message: your problems are caused by a government that has become too big and intrusive. It takes too much of your tax dollar to support things that undermine the moral fiber of society and tries to control your life by imposing mindless restrictions on everything you do. They advocate cutting back on government while strengthening defense and building more prisons to control the behavior of those who, in their view, lack the moral character to live responsible lives.

Reports from colleagues reveal that various forms of this deconstruction agenda are being advanced with an awesome speed and devastating consequences in nearly every country of the world. The driving force behind it comes from a convergence of neoliberal economic ideology, a corporate class interest, and the growing fears and frustrations of ordinary citizens who see their hopes for the future dashed by forces they only partially comprehend.

Powerful financial and corporate interests that have a big stake in lower taxes, deregulation, privatization, and social control of the excluded willingly use their money and media power to back the politicians and media personalities willing and able to build popular political support for such policies. It is an insidious process. The more successfully the social deconstruction agenda is advanced, the more economic and political power the financial elites are able to command, the greater their control over media and politicians, the more uncertain the lives of ordinary people, the greater the evidence of governmental failure, and the greater the populist appeal of the deconstructionists' political message.

Meanwhile our governments meet in global fora such as the Social Summit to produce declarations that reaffirm their faith in economic growth, market deregulation, and economic globalization as the foundation of peace, equality, human rights, democracy, a healthy environment, a strong social fabric, and universal prosperity. The underlying contradictions are ignored. For example:

  • Continued economic growth on a finite planet with an already overtaxed ecosystem only accelerates environmental breakdown and heightens the competition for resources between rich and poor.
  • Policies that expand the market economy inexorably displace the social economy of household and community--weakening the social fabric and destroying livelihoods faster than new jobs can be created.
  • Economic globalization shifts power from people, communities, and governments to global financial markets and corporations, places those institutions beyond human accountability, and makes responsible local action to meet local needs increasingly difficult.

While advocates of the social deconstruction agenda maintain they have a broadly based mainstream mandate, it is abundantly clear that the consequences of the policies they promote are sharply at odds with the kind of world that most people actually want. The evidence is overwhelming that people want to control their own economic resources, live in free and democratic societies built on strong families and communities free of violence, enjoy a healthy and beautiful environment, be productive members of society, and have an adequate and secure means of livelihood. What they are getting is social breakdown, environmental devastation, joblessness, growing economic desperation, and a political system cynically manipulated by big money.

There is growing hope, however. The debates around NAFTA, GATT, Maastricht, and other international agreements aimed at consolidating corporate rights and power in the name of free trade have helped give birth to a true populist political movement. Even with the full power of the mainstream media fully aligned behind the neoliberal economic ideology, many citizens are coming to recognize the true nature and implications of the massive economic restructuring that the deconstruction agenda is advancing. While they are told by the media that this restructuring is inevitable, the realization is emerging that their lives are being torn apart not by inexorable historical forces, but rather by conscious choices made by those who stand to benefit handsomely from the lowering of wages, the undermining of health and environmental standards, and the weakening of democracy--the same big money players who are bankrolling the conservative political movement.

We have come to see that when our governments invite citizens organizations to join them in global conferences such as the Social Summit to craft declarations of commitment to addressing pressing social and environmental needs, they are engaged in public posturing. We know the more substantive international agreements that define the priorities and commitments that create the human crisis are being crafted behind closed doors in secret consultations with the world's most powerful corporations in fora such as the World Trade Organization.

The experience of Canada is instructive. Fed up with a conservative government committed to free trade and corporate rights, in October 1993 Canadians voted out all but two members of the ruling party from their parliament one of the most sweeping repudiations of a democratically elected government in history. Once seated, the new Liberal party government went on to carry out essentially the same policies as the government the electorate had voted out. It became clear to many Canadians that global corporate interests had gained control over their government and economy.

A citizen organization, the Council of Canadians, was formed to oppose these forces. Its members are developing a "Citizens' Agenda for Canada" to define the kind of caring society that Canadians want for themselves and their children. The idea of a citizens' agenda was launched at the beginning of 1994 after NAFTA came into force. Hundreds of meetings were held across the country. There were also focus groups and expert consultations from which a draft document was produced and distributed to the 30,000 Council members. Feedback from more than 1,000 respondents was incorporated into a revised draft reviewed by participants in the Council's annual membership meeting in October 1994. Further drafts are being prepared.

We can no longer leave it to the mainstream political parties and corporate lobbyists to set the terms of the public policy debate. We must reclaim our basic rights and sovereignty as citizens and in so doing build the foundations of broadly based grassroots political movements. The need for such initiatives is almost universal and citizen groups in many countries are pursuing or considering such efforts.

The press to regain citizen sovereignty is unfolding at global as well as local levels. For example, many citizen organizations involved in the U.N. Social Summit concluded that little would come of the official negotiations so long as governments remained wedded to the prevailing neoliberal economic ideology. They thus joined in crafting an alternative Copenhagen declaration that rejected the official declaration on the ground that by embracing the neoliberal ideology of growth, free trade and free markets, it embraced the causes of the poverty, joblessness, and social disintegration it professed to alleviate.

This rejection, supported by a broad cross-section of civil sector organizations, prepares the way to engage grassroots citizen movements in building truly populist agendas for the human future. Citizen participants in the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing will be crafting a women's agenda for the 21st century. Citizen groups are building food and agriculture agendas in anticipation of the forthcoming World Food Conference. The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements to be held in Istanbul in June 1996 will provide an opportunity for grassroots groups from many countries to share their local and national agendas. It is important to meld these many initiatives into a global agenda for institutional reforms that will enable people to regain control of their lives, resources, and governments to resolve the problems that global conferences discuss at length, but cannot solve.

To an extent the right-wing ideologues are correct. Central governments are failing in their roles as guardians of the public interest. In simpler times the appropriate answer might have been simply to scale back governments and decentralize their functions. These are not, however, simple times and such an answer to a very real problem would simply remove the only remaining protection we have against the unaccountable power of global corporations and financial markets.

Corporations and governments exist for no purpose other than to serve the human interest as defined by an active and politically aware civil society. In all too many instances they are failing to do so. Countering the deconstruction agenda, restoring the public accountability of governments and corporations, and enabling people to regain control of their lives must begin with broadly based grassroots engagement in building local, national, and global citizen agendas that define the kinds of societies that people really want for themselves and their children.


David C. Korten is president of the People-Centered Development Forum (PCDForum) and the author of When Corporations Rule the World to be released in September 1995 by Kumarian Press, 630 Oakwood Ave., Suite 119, West Hartford, CT 06110-1529, U.S.A. phone (1-203) 953-0214 or fax (1-203) 953-8589 and Berrett Koehler Publishers.


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